Next stop for ‘waxy crude’ oil train: the U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court Utah Oil Railway
Rick Bowmer/AP, File.
FILE – A train transports freight on a common carrier line near Price, Utah, July 13, 2023. The Court has agreed to review a case that shut down plans to ship more oil along the Colorado River.

Updated on June 24, 2024, at 12:34 p.m.

A long-contested plan that could route billions of gallons of oil along rail lines in Colorado will get a hearing at the United States Supreme Court.

In a list of orders published Monday, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in the case of Seven County Coalition, et. al. v. Eagle County, CO, et al. The appeal advanced after the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled last August that a federal board erred when approving the project. 

The Uinta Basin Railway project would build around 80 miles of train tracks in Eastern Utah, connecting oil production there with rail lines that run through Colorado, along the Colorado River. The project has drawn significant pushback from Colorado politicians at all levels. 

Opponents of the project are concerned about adding up to five oil trains per day along a key source of fresh water for the Western United States, though supporters say a rail expansion is necessary for the project’s financial success. The oil extraction in eastern Utah would produce large volumes of crude oil that has a high wax content, making it difficult to transport via pipeline. 

That wax content means the oil must be heated in order to become liquid. Proponents of the project say the oil will not flow unless it’s heated to 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Therefore, backers of the project say, any spilled crude oil would solidify and be easier to clean up. 

However, the plan’s critics say the risk of a spill is still too high, noting recent high-profile train derailments in the state. They also point to the Grizzly Creek Fire in Glenwood Canyon that caused significant delays and mudslides along Interstate 70. 

The court ruling last year said the U.S. Surface Transportation Board’s review of the plan did not fulfill certain requirements laid out in the National Environmental Policy Act. Notably, the court said the review failed to properly assess and disclose potential risks and environmental damage, including impacts to the Colorado River. 

“The [Surface Transportation] Board is required to compare both sides of the ledger, not just acknowledge that both sides exist,” Judge Robert Wilkins wrote in the ruling.

The appeal was filed by the Seven County Coalition in Utah that’s backing the project. Its argument challenges whether the NEPA process requires an agency to examine environmental impacts beyond “the proximate effects of an action within its regulatory authority.” 

The case will come before the Court during its 2024-25 term, which starts in the fall.

Wendy Park, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, worked on the case along with others looking to halt the project. In a press release Monday, she called the news  “disappointing.” 

“The proposal for the Uinta Basin Railway cut corners from the start but federal laws are now catching up with this climate and environmental catastrophe. That will prevent this disastrous railway from being built,” Park said.

Keith Heaton, director of the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, said in a press release that he’s “optimistic” about the case going before the Supreme Court.

“This project is vital for the economic growth and connectivity of the Uinta Basin region, and we are committed to seeing it through,” Heaton said.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet is among the high-profile elected officials opposing the plan. 

“Senator Bennet continues to have serious concerns about the risks that the proposed Uinta Basin Railway project poses to Colorado’s communities, water supplies, and environment,” said a statement from Larkin Parker, Bennet’s communications director. 

“The U.S. Court of Appeals decision appropriately recognized that the Surface Transportation Board’s environmental reviews were insufficient and did not fully account for the proposed project’s dangers. The Senator will watch the Supreme Court case closely and hopes they will uphold the lower court’s ruling. He will continue fighting to protect Colorado’s communities from the threat of increased oil train traffic along the headwaters of the Colorado River.”

Proponents of the project are hoping that the Supreme Court will not only overturn the lower court ruling but that in doing so, it will provide guidance on environmental reviews more broadly. Casey Hopes, chair of the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, said in a statement the case will serve to clarify the NEPA Process, which could impact other large-scale projects across the country.

“The project team’s hope is that the high court reverses the DC Circuit Court ruling for the sake of future infrastructure projects across the country,” Hopes said.

This is a developing story and will be updated.